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The English and Their History:

The First Thirteen Centuries

Robert Tombs

(London Times)

'WHEN people say England,' the comic writer George Mikes once remarked, 'they sometimes mean Great Britain, sometimes the United Kingdom, sometimes the British Isles - but never England.'

That might have been true in 1946, when the Hungarian-born William Flew published his bestseller How to Be an Alien, gently mocking the quirks of his adopted country. But it is no longer true today. As the Scottish referendum campaign reminded us, England and Britain are far from being the same thing, and in the census of 2011, almost two out of three people in England ticked the box marked 'English' rather than 'British'. But what is England? In the final pages of his superlative new history, the Cambridge professor Robert Tombs has as good an answer as anyone. 'England,' he writes, 'is a rambling old property with ancient foundations, a large Victorian extension, a 1960s garage, and some annoying leaks and draughts balancing its period charm.'

In an age of excessive academic specialisation, it takes great courage for anyone - let alone an expert on 19th-century France - to write a single-volume history of England from the Anglo-Saxons to the present day. But Tombs has succeeded magnificently. Learned, pithy and punchy, with a laudable sense of narrative sweep and a bracing willingness to offer bold judgments, his survey is a tremendous achievement, and deserves to become the standard history for years to come.

One of the many refreshing things about his book is that he has no truck with the once-modish idea that there is nothing distinctive about England's history, and that the English are a European people like any other. From the start, he argues, England was different. The idea of Englishness was driven partly by religion: the English were the gens Anglorum, united in a single national church with two provinces of Canterbury and York, and by the threat of attack from the sea, notably by the Vikings. As early as the 10th century, the English had built a state stronger and more coherent than any other in Europe, based on the pillars of law, language and coinage, and, of course, tax. 'A prominent part of being English,' Tombs drily remarks, 'has been paying a lot of tax.'

What drove the importance of tax in English history was the threat of invasion. Tombs shows that Shakespeare was wrong to describe the Channel as a 'moat defensive' - it was a highway down which marauders often sailed. Yet with the obvious exception of the Norman Conquest, the exceptional thing about the English is that they have never been seriously defeated on home soil. Having never lost a war at home, been occupied or suffered a revolution on the scale of those in France in 1789, Russia in 1917 or Germany in 1918, the English, he thinks, have been profoundly fortunate. Hence the continuity of their institutions, from the monarchy and parliament to the common law and even the old counties. As he notes, it is extraordinary to think that not one European state is as old as Hampshire.

This is not to deny that English history has at times been violent, notably during the supposedly revolutionary 17th century. Quite rightly, Tombs does not underplay the bloodshed of the civil wars. describing the 1645 parliamentarian siege of Basing House, Hampshire, for example, he notes that after Cromwell's troops had taken the building, they massacred 100 people, including six Catholic priests and a young woman who had merely tried to defend her father. Yet such atrocities, he notes, were rare in England, especially by comparison with the horrors of the Thirty Years' War, the French Terror or the Spanish Civil War. And 'by the standards of humanity as a whole, England over the centuries has been among the richest, safest and best governed places on earth'.

But Tombs's book is also a history of what the English remembered. He is brilliant at showing how history itself became a political weapon, from the idea of the Norman yoke, supposedly oppressing the freeborn Saxons, to the memory of the 'Good Old Cause' espoused by parliamentarians in the 1640s, which rallied Whig politicians for centuries. As his narrative enters the Victorian era, he shows how the Whig version of history (a glorious progression towards parliamentary democracy) became the orthodoxy, and was then replaced after the Second World War by an emphasis on national decline, which fuelled the rise of Thatcherism during the 1970s.

Interestingly, Tombs has little time for the lazy anti-Thatcher orthodoxy popular among many academics, noting that 'something had to be done' about the economy, and that 'Pittsburgh, Bilbao, Liege, Essen, Kharkov and Saint-Etienne' suffered as badly as the cities of England's north. To blame Thatcher for the death of working-class England, he writes, is simply to shoot 'the admittedly rather hectoring messenger'. That should make him popular with his colleagues.

All in all, Tombs's book is a superb feat of compression and analysis. It is a long book, admittedly - but it is not a page too long. He finds room for everything, from Alfred and the cakes to William Tyndale's Bible and Stanley Baldwin's pipe. And although there is rather too much detail on more recent events - it is hard to believe that the journalist Andrew Gilligan would make it into a similar history in a century's time - he can readily be forgiven. Above all, his emphasis on the underlying continuity of England's history seems to me absolutely right. The English, he argues, have been lucky. But they made their own luck. And although Tombs eruditely rejects the idea of an English national character, there surely is such a thing as a national sense of humour. In one lovely passage, he quotes Samuel Pepys's diary, describing Charles II's triumphant return to Dover in 1660. 'I went with a dog that the king loved,' Pepys wrote, 'which shit in the boat and made us laugh and me think that a king and all that belong to him are but just as others are.' There speaks the voice of England.


The English and Their History, by the Professor of French history at Cambridge, Robert Tombs, is a work of supreme intelligence. Intelligence cuts its way through orthodoxy, dogmas, traditions and shibboleths rather as engineers hack their way through forests and mountains, slice open outcrops of nature and forge exciting new routes to old destinations. In this vigorous, subtle and penetrating book, Tombs defies the proprieties of our politically motivated national history curriculum to rethink and revise notions of national identity.

Tombs has done nothing less than narrate with rare freshness and confidence 2,000 years of English history. Distant historic events are used to give perspective to current affairs and looming crises. There is nothing blimpish about his approach - nor anything apologetic. 'By the standards of humanity as a whole, England over the centuries has been among the richest, safest and best governed places on earth, as periodical influxes of people testify,' he writes. 'Its living standards in the 14th century were higher than much of the world in the 20th... We who have lived in England since 1945 have been among the luckiest people in the existence of Homo sapiens, rich, peaceful and healthy.'

Tombs confutes his fellow historians who insist that England should in the 21st century be denied a distinctive history of its own, but instead be subsumed into 'British history'. England has been a sovereign kingdom for most of its history, and its relations with Scandinavia in early centuries, with France since the middle ages, with Spain and the Netherlands in the early modern period, and later with Germany and the United States, have been more important to English history than those with Wales, Scotland and Ireland. It is politically suppressive and historical cheating to devalue the study of distinctive English history, Tombs argues. No one would dare impose such cultural censorship on Ireland, Scotland and France.

Tombs traces the history of England as a kingdom, as an international power, as a nationality and as a cultural force. As well as the rulers, institutions, alliances and conquests, he examines the ideas, emotions, words and images that constitute national memory. He begins with the Roman invasion of Britain, recounts the early history of multiple petty kingdoms on the archipelago, and describes the complex aftermath of the 11th-century Norman Conquest. He pursues some fascinating byways (notably his account of the 16th-century emergence of Latinised English, of invigorated vernacular English and of Tyndale's English-language Bible), but inevitably many readers will fasten on to the topicality of his analysis of the past 450 years.

In Tombs's depiction, the succession of King James VI of Scotland as England's monarch after Queen Elizabeth's death in 1603 proved disastrous for the English, for in the House of Stuart 'the country acquired Europe's most hapless dynasty'. The single monarchy did not even protect England from Scottish invasions, which until 1745 proved more frequent and disruptive than ever. After the Act of Union between England and Scotland in 1707, there was long-standing English resentment at the growing influence of Scots in English political and cultural life, while Scotland kept its own legal and educational systems.

Tombs's book is full of arresting details, quirky sidelights, telling quotes and laconic humour.

For Tombs, perhaps the most decisive reign was that of William III, the Dutchman who in 1688 succeeded in a tricky invasion of England, dethroned his Catholic father-in-law James II and took control of the country almost without bloodshed. Although religious tensions continued to influence English political and social life for 250 years after William's Glorious Revolution, they seldom aroused violence. There was aggression in public life, but also an explicit rejection of extremism - often called 'enthusiasm' or 'fanaticism'. The English prided themselves on both plain speech and moderation.

William III was also crucial in changing the country's international status. He invaded England in order to bring it into his alliance to stop France from dominating Europe. In doing so he launched his conquered country as a great power. From 1688 until Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo in 1815, the London government fought the nine years war (1688-97), the war of the Spanish succession (1701-13), the seven years war (1756-63), and those against revolutionary and Napoleonic France (1792-1802, 1803-15). It won and (in the case of the costly American war of independence of 1775-83) lost immense territories.

Victory in 1815 over France left the London government ruling 'the first global hegemon in history' - a role that only one other power, the US, has ever occupied, with limited success since 1989. Nineteenth-century religious revivalism created a campaigning fervour for virtue, justice and self-improvement. The role of public opinion, parliamentary initiatives and the Royal Navy in suppressing the slave trade across much of the Earth - an uplifting history which is neglected in the rush to apologise for colonial excesses - is recounted by Tombs.

Compared with other European nations, England was pre-eminent in politics and economics, although not in the arts or the good life. The two-chamber parliament in London, the accountability of ministers to parliament, parliamentary control over government spending, constitutional monarchy, collective cabinet responsibility, and an independent judiciary were emulated across Europe during the next hundred years. The machinery, infrastructure and institutions of Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool and other cities were copied too.

Tombs gives an even-handed, open-eyed defence of the British empire from the attacks of anti-capitalist historians and anti-colonial nationalists. Although he is a historian of the grand sweep, his book is full of arresting details, quirky sidelights, telling quotes and delightful laconic humour. The text is crisscrossed with thematic linkages and thoughtful contrasts across the centuries, as when he notes that under the Blair government, England acquired its first underworld of murderous religious plotters since the 17th century.

The final sections of The English and Their History are intensely topical, although discomfiting. Tombs appraises the transformation of public structures and priorities, as well as of personal ambitions and conduct, under the Thatcherite and New Labour governments. He puts the blurred class distinctions, intensified economic inequality, revived sectarian hatreds and performance of the welfare state in both their English and European historical contexts. Bringing us to the present day, Tombs notes the oddity that Eurosceptics, whose complaints focus on sovereignty and the law, are most numerous in England, which is not a sovereign nation. His commentary on the European Union, immigration, 'target culture', erosions of traditional English privileges of privacy and liberty will unsettle conventional wisdom.

Robert Tombs's book is a triumph. In a literal sense it is definitive, for there is never a flash of ambiguity in any sentence. It is rare to find a book of such lucidity and authority that does not hector its readers. The English and Their History is transformative: it will be deplorable if its challenges are shirked, or its evidence is pooh-poohed. No history published this year has been of such resounding importance to contemporary debates. Tombs, who is both fearless and non-partisan, deserves to be rewarded with a life peerage for this book. There can be no steadier, calmer and more informed adviser during the constitutional crises looming in the next two or three years.

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